February 17, 2009

It's that time of year!

Carnival doesn’t officially start until this coming weekend but, true to fashion, the partying gets kicked off as early as possible.

The Carnival season accentuates an already existing social schism that finds the population embarking on two divergent headings. There is the upper middle class who, taking advantage of the Brazilian summer and the work and school closings, sequester themselves at their country homes or at resorts whose prices conveniently double during the national holiday. And then there are the unmonied, the povão, the great-unwashed masses who spend the year looking forward to a weeklong hiatus from their troubles by way of debauchery-induced amnesia.

In the past we haven’t really fallen into either category. We’ve stayed home, or visited a friend’s house and watched the lavish parades on television. One year we had a friend visiting and as his prompting we actually did buy tickets to the Sambódromo in Rio, the main exhibition stadium where the immense samba schools compete. It’s an incredible spectacle. One that makes a New Orleans Mardi Gras look like a backyard talent show.

But back home in our city, as with many, things are much quieter. Businesses are all closed and anyone with money has gotten out of Dodge, so to speak. Our normally packed and bustling main avenue becomes a genuine ghost town. My first Carnival in Brazil caught me by surprise. A few years ago the official exhibition parade was moved out of the city center and to an avenue that runs along the river so that it wouldn’t disrupt commercial activities. It doesn’t really make much sense because everything is closed anyway. I’d always heard that it was a wild, crazy time to be in Brazil, yet when I took a walk downtown it was eerily deserted.

In most places in Brazil, official Carnival activities fall into two categories. There are the samba schools that parade along a designated route that is often set up with bleachers and box seating, depending on the financial resources of the city (which is directly tied to how much the politicians managed to embezzle that year.) And then there are the street parties called blocos. I guess you could translate it as block party. Like the samba schools, the blocos have their own band, write their own official samba song, and have their own theme. In my city the blocos have sort of died out over the last 15 years, but are now starting to make a comeback.

This year, we decided to check one out.

A bloco goes something like this. It begins at a roughly designated time with the concentração, or the gathering, which basically means that everyone gets together stands around and starts to drink while the bateria (the drummers) examine their various noise makers and occasionally launch into some premature jams that tend to fizzle out after a few minutes. The concentração goes on until a certain spontaneous juncture is reached, whereby the forces of critical mass and level of inebriation converge, someone flips the switch on the truck carrying enormous speakers and the bloco's official samba starts blasting out at mind-numbing decibels. The bateria then lines up behind the truck to have their eardrums blown out, while the singer grabs the mic, pamphlets with the samba’s lyrics are passed around and everyone starts dancing and carousing in what essentially amounts to a big drunken sing-a-long.

Not being able to fully understand the lyrics and feeling very self-conscious that my non-rhythm bearing gringa hips stuck out like a sore thumb, I stood on the sidelines and dedicated myself to documenting the whole experience. Here's a few of my favorites.

Bloco de Samba

Bloco de Samba

Bloco de Samba

Bloco de Samba

Bloco de Samba

Bloco de Samba

Bloco de Samba

Bloco de Samba

The last photo is of Arnaldo Baptista who is something of a god-figure that this particular bloco has dedicated itself to worshiping. (And you get a star for being extra hip if you know who he is... hint, he's over there in the sidebar under the Amazon music!)

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Rachel said...

You're an awesome writer! I really liked your explanation, and the photos are really beautiful. i've been to juiz de fora a couple of times and it's a fun little city, but I thought it didn't have anything during Carnival. Guess it has some action!

lovelydharma said...

Hey, thanks Rachael!

That means a lot coming from an Uber-blogger like yourself!!!

JF doesn't really have much Carnival to speak of. There's a rather rag-tag series of samba schools on the official route and a bunch of drunken nonsense in the neighborhoods. But tonight we are checking out the bloco "Domesticas do Luxo." White men in black face. Yikes!

Laural Out Loud said...

When I realized I'd be in Brasil for Carnival this year, I was so excited. Finally, I'd get to see what all the hype was about in person! But I just found out that we'll be heading to my BIL's beach house in the middle of nowhere for Carnival. That's the kind of luck I have.